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One on One: with Captain Mark Rebholz

Rebholz is a B747 pilot with United Airlines and president of Specialized Air Transport International of Aguila, Arizona.


September 28, 2007
By Darren Locke

281-markOn July 2, 2005, Captain Mark Rebholz and millionaire aviation
adventurer Steve Fossett set out to cross the Atlantic in a Vickers
Vimy replica. Rebholz acted as copilot and navigator for the flight
undertaken in honour of Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur
Whitten Brown who made the first non-stop aerial crossing of the
Atlantic in a modified Vimy IV in 1919.

Rebholz
is a B747 pilot with United Airlines and president of Specialized Air
Transport International of Aguila, Arizona. He talks not only about his
mission with Fossett, but also shares his thoughts on the future for
the US airline industry.

CAPTAIN REBHOLZ, WITH REGARD TO THE
VIMY’S PLANNED FLIGHT ACROSS THE ATLANTIC FROM ST. JOHN’S TO CLIFDEN,
IRELAND, WHY IS THIS FLIGHT BEING UNDERTAKEN AND WHAT IS THE MOTIVATION
BEHIND IT?

We want to bring credit and recognition to Alcock and
Brown, mostly because they seem to have faded into history because so
many events happened right after this that were very notable in the
press. It seemed that, while they were the very first to do a non-stop
transatlantic flight, they didn’t get their due credit.

WHAT
WILL BE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES THAT YOU ANTICIPATE ON THIS MISSION, AND
WHAT KIND OF LIMITATIONS DOES THE TECHNOLOGY USED ON THIS AIRCRAFT
IMPOSE THAT ARE NOT SEEN IN COMMERCIAL AVIATION TODAY?

Some of
the challenges are basically what any low performance ferry pilot faces
every day when he ferries a small airplane over a long distance. That
is, you’re flying in a low-altitude environment, weather is a much
greater factor than for a larger aircraft. Basically, it’s the same as
a low-performance airplane – you’re not in high altitude areas so you
have to deal with low-altitude weather and low performance – and of
course the winds have a greater effect on you at slower speeds than
they do at faster speeds. So the winds are a very important aspect of
our flight planning.

I think the most challenging thing we have
to put up with is how uncomfortable the flight is going to be, but when
it comes to the actual safety aspects of the flight, it’s a proven,
reliable airplane, and we’re going to go on a good day; we’re not going
to go on a bad day, so that we don’t have to deal with a lot of really
bad weather. This is not a race – we don’t have the external pressures
that the original crew had to go through. They were willing to die for
this, and I’m not.

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE EXPERIENCE TO DATE
OF PILOTING THE VICKERS VIMY, AND DOES THE COMPLETION OF EVERY FLIGHT
GIVE YOU A GREAT FEELING OF PERSONAL SATISFACTION AND ACCOMPLISHMENT?

Yes,
every time I land this airplane and it’s safely put away after a
successful flight I feel very satisfied. A lot of people say, “Wow,
that must be fun to fly!” I could describe it in a lot of different
ways, but “fun” is not a word I would use. It’s not comfortable, but
it’s very rewarding, and because of the precautions I have to take,
it’s a very satisfying airplane to fly. But I do other things for fun.

HOW
ABOUT THE ROLE OF CANADIAN SPONSORS FOR THIS MISSION, ESPECIALLY
CANADIAN AVIATION INDUSTRY SPONSORS? HAS THE SUPPORT OF, FOR EXAMPLE,
AIR LABRADOR, AIR CANADA, BOMBARDIER, ETC. BEEN AN IMPORTANT FACTOR IN
YOUR SUCCESS TO DATE?

They’re not only an important factor,
they’re an essential factor. We’re a nonprofit organization that
depends on sponsors and benefactors to carry on. For example, I’m a
volunteer. If a hotel bill or a rental car bill is not picked up by a
sponsor, it comes out of my own pocket, so every little bit no matter
how small it may seem, is very, very important to all of us on the
project. So you’re very correct in saying that Bombardier, Air Canada,
Air Labrador, IMP here in this hangar where we are, just every little
bit of service and help that we get from everyone here helps. I know I
haven’t remembered everyone to mention, but at a later date I’ll be
able to do that. We can’t operate without those sponsors.

DO YOU
THINK THAT THE CROWDS OF PEOPLE THAT CAME OUT TO VIEW THE AIRCRAFT IN
ST. JOHN’S AND AT OTHER LOCATIONS ACROSS CANADA DEMONSTRATE A HEALTHY
PUBLIC INTEREST IN COMMERCIAL AVIATION AND THE ROLE IT HAS PLAYED IN
SHAPING OUR MODERN SOCIETY AS WE KNOW IT?

Absolutely. In fact,
the enthusiasm in Canada seems to be a little more profound than in
parts of the United States, only because people in the States seem to
have taken it for granted; like it’s something that’s always been
there. They seem to forget that it’s come at a price. I think that
aviation is closer to the people in Canada for, among many other
reasons, the remoteness of the country. You depend on aviation, all
forms of aviation, not just airline commercial jet aviation, but from
bush-line to general aviation.

AS A B747 PILOT FOR UNITED
AIRLINES YOU’RE OBVIOUSLY QUITE AWARE OF ALL THE TREMENDOUS CHALLENGES
AND PRESSURES THAT THE GLOBAL COMMERCIAL AVIATION INDUSTRY HAS FACED
OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS. IN LIGHT OF THESE CHALLENGES, HOW APPROPRIATE
IS IT THAT AN AMBITIOUS AND CHALLENGE-FILLED ENDEAVOUR SUCH AS THIS IS
BEING ATTEMPTED AT THIS TIME?

Well, again, I think that on the
worldwide scene aviation has been taken for granted as a public
transportation system that should be available to everyone. That’s the
perception of the general public, the travelling public. They seem to
think it’s an entitlement that should be given to them at an
inexpensive price. No one seems to be aware just how expensive it is to
operate an airplane, and just how expensive the fuel is. No one seems
to take into account just what it takes to operate, not just an
airline, but any airplane at all is expensive to operate, and it comes
at a price. And the travelling public is not willing to pay that price.

For
example, when they book a reservation, the very first priority is
“what’s the cheapest flight from here to there?” They don’t ask for the
safest flight; they don’t ask for the most efficient flight. They don’t
ask to fly with the most experienced crew or the most experienced
airline, or the better airplane. They want the cheapest ticket, and
then they complain that the service was bad, or the flight was late, or
whatever.

So, how appropriate is it that we do this? I think
it’s drawing attention to the general public, that things weren’t
always as easy as they are now. This endeavour is drawing attention to
the fact that things come at a price. And this was the price that the
early aviators had to pay to prove that this was even possible.

WHAT
ABOUT THE FUTURE OF THE AIRLINE INDUSTRY IN BOTH CANADA AND THE US?
THINGS NOW APPEAR TO BE STABILIZING IN CANADA’S INDUSTRY IN THE WAKE OF
AIR CANADA’S HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL RESTRUCTURING, THE COLLAPSE OF JETSGO,
IMPROVED SECURITY, ETC. WHAT DO YOU SEE AHEAD FOR THE US INDUSTRY IN
PARTICULAR, AND HOW DO YOU THINK THE INDUSTRY WILL EVOLVE OVER THE NEXT
FEW YEARS?

I’m normally an optimist, but in this case I’m so
close to the industry. I don’t see the fundamental changes being made
that will allow the US airline industry to turn around, at least not in
the near future. And it’s deeper than an airline – it’s deeper than the
actual airline industry. It’s a corporate change that has to occur. We
have some fundamental problems in the US about the outsourcing of jobs,
the benefit packages and pay packages for employees that are under
attack right now. As long as US airlines have to compete on a global
scale with airlines that are subsidized by their governments, or
operate out of countries where crews are paid substantially less than
in the US, I think the American airline industry is doomed.

You
know, I’m working at 45% of the pay that I used to make two years ago,
and I’ve lost my pension. And with all these concessions that the
United Airlines pilot group has made, we haven’t given enough yet. The
corporations seem to think that the only way to turn this around is to
take more from the employees. Well, as long as I have to compete with a
Thai Airways captain who makes the equivalent of probably 50,000 or
60,000 US dollars a year, and he’s living very well in Bangkok, I would
like to see him live in Southern California for that. And that’s the
captain – the junior crew members, we would all be on food stamps as
junior crew members. So there’s something wrong globally, and I think
the US airline industry is doomed.

We need to charge more –
people think it’s an entitlement to get a $150 ticket to go
coast-to-coast, and we need to raise the ticket prices. It costs more
than that to operate the airplanes. There should be a regulation, and
that regulation should be ‘it’s illegal to operate an airplane for less
than what it costs’. In other words, you can’t go undercut somebody and
be so cutthroat that you drive other people out of business.

The
darling of the industry now is JetBlue in the US. If you’re a
first-year copilot at JetBlue, and you have a wife and two children,
and your wife does not work because she’s caring for the two children,
you qualify for food stamps. Now, what’s wrong with that? There’s a
hell of a lot wrong with that. There should be a law against that.

DO
YOU THINK THE AMERICAN LEGACY CARRIERS WILL CONTINUE TO SURVIVE, AND
MAYBE PROSPER, AND HOW DO YOU THINK THEY WILL CHANGE TO MEET THE
COMPETITIVE THREAT FROM DISCOUNT AIRLINES?

The legacy carriers
can only survive in a way that is so different from their traditional
past that they won’t be recognizable. They may carry the same name, but
it won’t be the same kind of airline. The employee benefit packages and
pay rates will be so low that they’ll attract a different kind of
person. The service will be nothing like what it should be, it will be
more of a bus service, even more so than it is now. I think because of
the legacy carriers we’ve established a standard that has been
recognized as the standard for all of the federal governments that
regulate these kinds of things. It’s because of the legacy carriers
that the safety factor is where it is today, and so the newer carriers
or the rebuilt legacy carriers will ride on the coattails, so to speak,
of the legacy carriers that have established the safety standards that
are in place today. And the reason we don’t have airplanes falling out
of the sky today like we would 20 years ago is because of the newer
advances that have only come into place during the last 10- 15 years,
such as TCAS and the Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS),
Datalink, and Air Traffic Control issuing CPDLC (Controller/Pilot
Datalink Communication). SN Brussels Airlines will take part in a 2006
trial where it will request and receive its individual aircraft ground
movement clearances, such as pushback and taxi, via Datalink at
Brussels Zaventem Airport using onboard VHF Datalink Mode 2 (VDL – 2).
All of these enhanced systems, it took the legacy carriers and their
resources to develop these. If you went to JetBlue or Southwest
Airlines to come up with this stuff it never would have happened.

I
think that safety will be compromised once all the airlines change and
I guess when everything changes like that, you’re going to find that
people aren’t taking it quite as seriously in order to be an airline
pilot or a crew member. There’s a loss of basic traditional skills, and
you know a modern guy who’s only experiencing navigation as following a
magenta line on some map mod somewhere, when the shit hits the fan he
won’t have the basics to fall back on. Whereas if they had proper
training, which the new airlines can’t afford … They just make a lot of
assumptions: If you have a rating and an employee in the seat, you can
start flying. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is that ‘survival of the
fittest’ will determine what happens, but the fittest is not
necessarily the … what I’m getting at is that ‘luck’ is coming into
this too.

I’m very disappointed. I have eight years to go before
I retire, and I’m probably going to lose my job with United. I don’t
think United’s going to survive. Here I’ll be, a very qualified guy
with a lot of type ratings on a lot of airplanes, but no one will hire
me because I’m basically not what they’re looking for. They’re looking
for a former high school teacher who wanted a career change at 40 years
old and he’s willing to work for $1,800 a month. They don’t want an
experienced airman, because we experienced airmen have proved by our
safety record that you don’t need to be an experienced airman. We’ve
made it too easy. The turnover rate will be much higher, and once they
start experiencing a high turnover rate, that’s when safety will be
compromised.

WHAT ABOUT THE DISCOUNTERS SUCH AS SOUTHWEST AND
JETBLUE? WILL THEY BECOME EVEN LARGER AND MORE PERVASIVE, OR IS THERE A
NATURAL LIMIT AS SOME AVIATION PEOPLE THINK TO THE GROWTH THEY WILL
EXPERIENCE?

I think there’s a limit to their growth. For
example, there’s a reason that Southwest is making money now and others
aren’t; and that is they were able to hedge on their fuel costs. If it
wasn’t for that, they would be asking for concessions from their
employees, just like every other airline is. Now, there will come a
time when, sooner or later, they’ll have to start raising their prices,
they’ll start asking concessions from their employees, and their
employees will become unhappy just like the others at the legacy
airlines. And there’s a reason JetBlue is making money, and that’s
because of the different financing schemes they’ve had for their
different airplanes. That will catch up to them, sooner or later.
Sooner or later, when they have to start paying their bills, they also
are going to have to start charging more for their services.

Look
what happened to Continental Airlines – Frank Lorenzo broke the union
at Continental and continued to operate, first of all with a bunch of
scabs. Then they offered the jobs back to the striking pilots, and a
few of them came back. From that point on, if you couldn’t get a job
anywhere in the industry, you could get a job with Continental
Airlines. The pay was lowest, and you might not be qualified anywhere
else, but they would hire you at Continental. And after all these
years, that strike happened in 1983, they find that their employees
started wanting the same things. They formed a union, they got back
into ALPA. There’s a reason that unions form – it’s because of
employees that need to be fairly represented, and they need to be
fairly compensated, and when Continental didn’t do that they were
finally able to negotiate a union contract.

You know, I have
some acquaintances at Continental Airlines, and they’re complaining
about what’s happening to their airline. And all I have to say to them
is, “if you didn’t take that job back in 1985 for peanuts, the industry
wouldn’t be in the situation it’s in now.”

WITH CHINA’S AND
INDIA’S AIRLINE AND AVIATION INDUSTRIES RAPIDLY GROWING, NOT TO MENTION
THOSE OF SOME NATIONS IN THE MIDDLE EAST (EMIRATES, QATAR), DO YOU
THINK THAT ESTABLISHED INTERNATIONAL AIRLINES IN NORTH AMERICA AND
EUROPE WILL ULTIMATELY FACE HUGE COMPETITIVE PRESSURES FROM THIS SOURCE
AS WELL?

Yes – we’re screwed. The only thing that’s keeping them
at bay, just barely at bay now, is the US government regulations
against cabotage and things like that. Once the Bush administration
decides to let those go, it’ll mean the end for the legacy airlines.

AS
AN EXPERIENCED AVIATOR WITH A DEEP SENSE OF AVIATION HISTORY, WHAT
WOULD YOU SAY TO YOUNG PEOPLE CONTEMPLATING A CAREER IN THE INDUSTRY
TODAY?

First of all, learn the basics, because when everything
fails, whether it’s your airline fails or your engine fails, or a
component on your airplane fails, you always have to revert to the
basics. And what I see now is a shortcut in training and a shortcut in
the entire industry – it’s going right from a basic trainer to a glass
cockpit in a high-performance airplane, with nothing in between. It’s
going to crater, and sooner or later just like the start-ups it’s going
to catch up with us – sooner or later. We have an industry now that’s
based on all the fancy equipment that the legacy airlines developed,
and when the equipment is no longer available then things are going to
change.

For example, this high dependence on GPS navigation. One
of these days, that just might get turned off, or filtered through a
coding system where we have to pay for it. If you can’t navigate
without GPS, you might as well not even be a pilot.